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The battle for Hillcrest 

Tippi McCullough and Ross Noland square off to represent perhaps the House's most progressive district.

click to enlarge PROGRESSIVE V. PROGRESSIVE: Ross Noland is taking on Tippi McCullough for House District 33.
  • PROGRESSIVE V. PROGRESSIVE: Ross Noland is taking on Tippi McCullough for House District 33.

On May 22, voters will decide between Tippi McCullough, a longtime teacher and activist, and Ross Noland, an attorney and nonprofit director, in a race to represent downtown and midtown Little Rock in the state legislature. Actually, only Democratic voters will decide the race, but in House District 33, which stretches across Little Rock's midsection, from Reservoir Road to the River Market, south of Riverdale and mostly to the north of Interstate 630, there's not much distinction between Democratic voters and all voters. It's perhaps the state's most reliably liberal district.

After serving three terms, Democratic Rep. Warwick Sabin announced last year he would not seek re-election, but would instead explore running for Little Rock mayor. The winner of the Democratic primary will win the November election by default; no Republican or Libertarian candidate filed to run.

At a debate sponsored by the Pulaski County Democratic Party held Monday at Philander Smith College, McCullough and Noland substantively agreed on all policy questions: Both oppose Governor Hutchinson's proposal to reduce income tax rates on the state's highest earners, think charter schools should not be able to grow unchecked, believe that public schools are underfunded, argue that the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences needs more state funding and support the preservation of War Memorial Park as green space.

McCullough and Noland live one street apart in Hillcrest, but their backgrounds and policy priorities separate them, each candidate said in an interview.

McCullough, 54, has taught English at Little Rock Central High School for the last four years. Before that, she spent 14 years at Mount St. Mary Academy, which fired her in 2013 for marrying her longtime partner, Pulaski County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Barbara Mariani. The Catholic girls' school said McCullough had violated a morality clause in her contract, though according to McCullough, her relationship with Mariani was no secret at the school. The firing led to a public outcry; McCullough and Mariani traveled around the country sharing their story on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign's advocacy for LGBT rights.

The experience "opened my eyes a little bit" to politics, McCullough said. She became president of the Stonewall Democrats in 2014, which in turn got her more involved in state Democratic politics. It was a natural transition from LGBT advocate to political activist. "LGBT people are people — they have the same issues everyone else does" with housing, jobs and health care, she said. In January 2017, she became the chair of the Pulaski County Democratic Party. (She stepped back from active leadership during the campaign and plans to resume her duties after the election.)

On the campaign trail, McCullough likes to say, "I've lived in Little Rock for nearly 20 years, and I'm fortunate to live in Hillcrest, but I didn't grow up there." She was raised by a single mother in Hot Springs. She was the first in her family to get a college education, thanks, McCullough says, to her basketball skills, which landed her a scholarship at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. After graduation, she got a job coaching basketball and teaching English in Kingston (Madison County) and later Mountain Pine (Garland County) and Newport. She was the first woman to be president of the Arkansas Basketball Coaches Association. (Asked in the debate Monday how she would govern in the minority party, she cited that leadership, saying the association looked a lot like the legislature, which drew laughs from the audience.)

Coaching and teaching all over the state makes it easy for her to relate to people, she said. She's witnessed the "struggles" of her students and their families, "whether it was because they were homeless or hungry or suffering abuse." That experience, along with her involvement in the Arkansas Education Association, which she said "strives to improve students' lives at school and also the teaching profession as a whole," gives her an edge in the campaign, she said. "Every door I knock on, when I ask them the most important issue to them, they say, 'Education.' "

McCullough is vice president of the Hillcrest Residents Association. When the Hillcrest Merchants Association considered shuttering the popular Hillcrest HarvestFest, she volunteered to step in to run the fest.

click to enlarge MCCULLOUGH - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • MCCULLOUGH

Noland, 37, is a lawyer who divides his time between his firm, specializing in environmental litigation, and serving as executive director of the Buffalo River Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to cooperative conservation in the Buffalo River watershed. He cites his Arkansas bona fides on the campaign trail. He was born and raised in Little Rock and graduated from Central High School in 1999 as "Mr. Tiger Spirit." He received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, before completing a master's degree in environmental law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. After working at a private firm in D.C., he returned to Little Rock to clerk for Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan. Then he joined U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln's staff as legislative counsel to Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which Lincoln chaired. After she was defeated by John Boozman, Noland returned to Little Rock and worked primarily on environmental litigation for the McMath Woods law firm for five years before going into solo practice and taking on the leadership position with the Buffalo River Foundation.

Noland says his experience gives him the edge in the campaign. He's seen the inner workings of government, from his time at the U.S. Senate to working as an attorney in Little Rock and writing bills that have become law and rules that became regulations.

His knowledge of environmental issues also separates him from McCullough, he said. "There is no leader out on environmental issues down there. If there's one thing that affects us all — rich or poor, black or white, north or south of the interstate — it's the air that we breathe and the water we drink. To me, it's one of the most important issues facing the state and the nation right now, and I don't think we have enough emphasis on it. ... As far as what I can get done, I'm fully aware that I'm running to be a freshman in the lower house in the minority party."

But Noland said issues he's campaigning on have broad-based appeal. He wants to make renewable energy more accessible to the average person. "We need to make it easy for retail customers to deploy solar, whether it's through access to financing or making sure they get a fair price when they put energy back into the grid," he said. "There's a freedom association to producing your own energy" that Republicans should appreciate. He also said the playbook for state conservation could be used in passing other environmental measures in the legislature.

"We have a strong outdoor recreation movement in Arkansas. It's key for the environmental and conservation movement to tie what you like to do outdoors on the weekend to the fact that you need clean air and water to do it — whether it's duck hunting or floating or whatever." Outdoor activity is a "huge economic engine" throughout the state, he said.

Noland is married to Ali Noland; they have two children, the oldest of whom is in pre-K in the Little Rock School District. "The fundamental role of the legislature is to perform oversight of its executive agencies," he said. "We've got to get a plan to return to local control of the school board," he said. Expanding pre-K throughout the state is also one of his priorities.

Noland said he supports the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial and strongly opposes Issue 1, the legislatively referred constitutional amendment that would limit the amount of compensation juries can provide for noneconomic damages, such as in injury or wrongful death cases.

After years of being a "policy person," Noland said he decided to get involved in politics because of the political climate. "The time to act is now. If you're not pissed off about what's going on out there now, you're not paying attention," he said.


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